There is accumulating scientific evidence of the potential of play and playfulness to enhance human capacity to respond to adversity and cope with the stresses of everyday life. In play we build a repertoire of adaptive, flexible responses to unexpected events, in an environment separated from the real consequences of those events. Playfulness helps us maintain social and emotional equilibrium in times of rapid change and stress. Through play, we experience flow—A feeling of being taken to another place, out of time, where we have controlled of the world. This paper argues that spontaneous free play, controlled and directed by children and understood from the child’s perspective, contributes to children’s subjective experience of well-being, building a foundation for life-long social and emotional health. The paradoxical nature of young children’s spontaneous free play is explored. Adaptability, control, flexibility, resilience and balance result from the experience of uncertainty, unpredictability, novelty and non-productivity. These essential dimensions of young children’s spontaneous free play typically produce play which is experienced by adults as chaotic, nonsensical and disruptive. The article concludes with a preliminary discussion of the challenges and possibilities of providing for spontaneous free play indoors, in early childhood care and education programs.
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